In a close election, members of the National Organization for Women (NOW) voted last weekend to elect Terry O’Neill as their new president, despite concerns that younger leadership may be necessary for the organization’s survival.
O’Neill, 56, is an attorney who served as NOW’s vice president for membership from 2001 to 2005. In her campaign, she said she would focus on grassroots organizing and membership recruitment as the pro-abortion group struggles to add new members.
“The press releases, the media exposure, invitations to the White House -- these are excellent things, but they're not enough,” she said. “It's going to take well-organized, grassroots movement to advance our agenda.”
O’Neill, who will take office on July 21, describes herself as “honored and eager” to take over leadership of the organization. However, statements from her opponent’s campaign reveal concerns about the age and relevance of NOW as a force in the modern world.
Running against O’Neill was Latifa Lyles, former Vice President of NOW who also has a background in grassroots organizing. Support for the two candidates was narrowly divided.
Both women supported a “feminist” agenda that includes increasing access to abortion and birth control, however Lyles claimed she could also offer the organization a much-needed image makeover that would encourage participation from a broader range of women.
As a 33-year-old African American, Lyles ran a campaign emphasizing youth and diversity. Supporters hoped she would be able to draw in younger members and revitalize the movement, whose current membership is mostly white and over age 40.
“The profile of NOW is just as important as the work we do,” Lyles said. “There are a lot of antiquated notions about what feminism is.”
Lyles was seen as a figure who could modernize NOW. Her campaign website spoke of working with “new technology” and trying to “reenergize feminist activists.” Among important goals, she listed an increase in membership, including “the recruitment of young women and women of color, both as members and leaders.”
New York Times bestselling author and feminist Nancy Redd also endorsed Lyles as the best option to “renew faith” in NOW. In her endorsement, Redd acknowledged that membership growth had “stagnated” and that thousands of similarly-minded activists “dismiss involvement with NOW, not seeing our organization as ‘for them.’”
With Lyles’ defeat last weekend, pro-abortion feminists are pinning their hopes on O’Neill.